In the past year, some of the nation's most prominent colleges and universities have begun offering online courses in a way that could transform higher education.
Online education isn't new. But it could soon begin to replace the traditional classroom setting for many.
A little or no cost to students, Stanford and Harvard universities, the University of Pennsylvania and others are offering easy access to online classes — and they're doing it on a gigantic scale.
In higher education, such efforts are called massive open online courses, in which tens of thousands of students commonly take a class at the same time. One University of Michigan finance course has drawn upwards of 130,000 people.
The courses are designed to be easily accessible, College of St. Scholastica President Larry Goodwin said.
The most well-known online education players, however, are three companies: Coursera, edX and Udacity.
Coursera offers instruction through 33 partner universities, which create the free classes. After college faculty teach the course, Coursera offers them through an online stream.
The online classes are largely offered in science and technology, but Coursera also offers the humanities — such as a class on Greek and Roman Mythology from the University of Pennsylvania.
Students watch lectures in snippets that are often just 10 to 15 minutes long. Some are fairly simple talks, but others offer multimedia experiences.
The classes usually last four to 12 weeks and often require 8 to 10 hours a week of work.
They involve more than merely watching videos, said Ken Graetz, director of teaching, learning and technology services at Winona State University.
"Then you do some homework online," said Graetz, who has taken several massive online courses. "You're either writing something, or you're working through some problems that you submit, and those things are graded, and you get feedback. You participate in discussions with other students online."
Quizzes are generally graded by computer.
Because one professor can't grade thousands of essays, in many classes, students grade each other's papers.
Graetz said he's been pleasantly surprised by massive online courses.
"They really are very engaging experiences," he said.
For now, they're generally free.
But sites and their partner universities want to make money by charging fees for certificates of completion, or for related services.
Meanwhile, employers and universities are slowly starting to acknowledge the value of the classes.
But Minnesota has had trouble keeping up with them.
Bloggers criticized the state earlier this month when the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that a 20-year-old law requires state regulation of the courses — even though they're free and carry no credit.
The law is out of date, said Larry Pogemiller, director of the state Office of Higher Education.
"When you read the statute, it clearly did not envision this," Pogemiller said.
Pogemiller said he'll ask legislators to review the law in the next session.
The most fervent advocates of the massive courses say they could replace — or at least threaten — established colleges and universities.
But Trent Kays, a doctoral student in writing studies at the University of Minnesota, disagrees.
Despite technological gains, the courses remain as impersonal as those large lecture-hall classes that students complain about on campus, said Kays, who has taken several online courses.
"Except instead of one instructor and 300 students, you have one instructor and 4,000 students, for example," Kays said. "And we know that it doesn't necessarily work offline with those 300 students, so why do we think it would work online with 4,000?"
The University of Minnesota is exploring the courses' potential, but has no immediate plans to create any, Provost Karen Hanson said.
"They've been touted as a completely disruptive technology for higher education," Hanson said. "That's not happening anytime soon, I think."
Still, St. Scholastica president Goodwin sees massive courses as a tool that could save faculty time.
For example, he said, Scholastica professors could assign students the first two weeks of a Harvard University course as required viewing. Then when they meet again in class, the professors could work intensely with students on that material.
• Follow Alex Friedrich on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mprafriedrich